Minding the Sciences — In Defense of Merit: Is it too late?

Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a new Minding the Campus article series called Minding the Sciences, wherein we are renewing our focus on the sciences given the many threats it faces in modern academia. Click here to learn more.

In late April 2023, twenty-nine scientists published a manifesto titled “In Defense of Merit in Science.” The authors (I will call them the “Twenty-Niners”) noted with irony that a defense of merit could only find a home in the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Merit is controversial? Never mind—the piece is a high-minded and vigorous defense of Enlightenment values against the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) mania that is sweeping through our society. I agree with everything the Twenty-Niners wrote.

That same week, three events provided disturbing contrast to their manifesto.  

1. The University of Pennsylvania held a show trial to strip tenure from Amy Wax, professor of law, who hurt the feelings of black law students.  

2. Way out in Bakersfield, Matthew Garrett, professor of history at Bakersfield College, was railroaded for ruffling the feathers of black people, along with sympathetic administrators and trustees. For his sin, he was stripped of tenure and dismissed.  

3. Scott Gerber, professor of law at Ohio Northern University (ONU), was pulled out of his classroom by campus security officers and perp-walked (along with an armed state police escort) to the ONU law school dean’s office. There he was told he could either resign immediately or face termination proceedings. His offense? ONU declines to say anything other than a vague assertion that Gerber was not sufficiently “collegial,” which is academic speak for “you hurt peoples’ feelings.”  

These stories made me think something else about the Twenty-Niners’ manifesto: dream on, you sweet summer children!  

That sounds harsh. I should explain.  

The Twenty-Niners are no Pollyannas. They correctly lay out the many ways in which DEI opposes the scientific worldview and, indeed, endangers science itself. They are clear-eyed about the damage DEI has done: some of the manifesto’s authors have experienced this damage first-hand. While they are not the first to point out the danger, they have, in my opinion, done the best job to date of explaining how DEI endangers the future of science.  

The Twenty-Niners’ remedy for the DEI ailment falls naively short, though. Two of their six recommendations suffice to make my point. Scientists, they write, should “[insist] that government funding for research be distributed solely on the basis of merit.” Okay! Similarly, scientists should “[ensure] that admissions, hiring, and promotion are merit-based and free from ideological tests.” And we agree again!  

And how many divisions has the Pope?

[Related: “Against Merit”]

What the Twenty-Niners seem not to realize is the nature of the fight they (we) are in. Nice-sounding words notwithstanding, DEI is a political project, which means it is motivated only by the pursuit of power. Its proponents are not interested in philosophical discussion. While scientists have been busy at their benches, DEI ideologues have been playing the long game, and they have taken over all the systems that scientists long thought would defend the autonomy and intellectual independence that are essential to their craft.  

• Think your administration supports your attachment to Enlightenment ideals? The cases of Wax, Garrett, and Gerber bely that hope. We can point to many others: these three illustrate only the most recent, brazen slaps in our faces.  

• Think tenure will protect you? Tenure is on its way out, I’m afraid.  

• Think your grants will buy you safety? Doesn’t money talk? I have bad news: nearly every grant funder has swallowed DEI whole, so good luck getting your proposals read, never mind funded.  

• Think your supposedly independent accreditation boards will defend your right to determine how you teach your students? Think again. They, too, have been thoroughly captured by DEI’s advocates, and they didn’t consult you about that.  

• Surely, your professional and scientific societies will rise to your defense? Well, they’ve been thoroughly blue-pilled. Exhibit A: the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is now completely woke. The same can be said for virtually every other professional scientific society.  

• If I nevertheless decide to take a brave stand against DEI, my colleagues will defend me in solidarity with our shared values, right? Fuhgeddaboudit! Your colleagues know how their bread is buttered, and conformity to DEI is the social credit they need to buy the butter. They will not jeopardize careers, promotions, grants, and all the other emoluments of modern academic life to stand up for you.  

The unfortunate reality is that scientists, even scientists of the Twenty-Niners’ caliber, have lost control of their professions. To restore science to what it should be, scientists need to wrest control back. Not urge, wrest. Furthermore, they will not be able to do so from within the hollowed-out husk that the academic ecosystem has become. Scientists’ role there, whether they acknowledge it or not, is no longer to do science—it is to keep the grift going. The actual science that you do is just a mask.  

Saving science is going to thrust science into some unaccustomed and uncomfortable places. If you don’t like, say, the governor of Florida signing legislation to zero out DEI funding, provide a realistic alternative. Hint: you’ve already lost to a shapeshifting, entrenched ideology that is not about to go away. And you have nothing to say about it.  

Image: Adobe Stock


  • J. Scott Turner

    J. Scott Turner is the author of The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself (Harvard University Press, 2007). He is also director of the Prometheus Project at the National Association of Scholars.

14 thoughts on “Minding the Sciences — In Defense of Merit: Is it too late?

  1. The simple primary function of the DEI movement/bureaucray is to promote and provide mechanisms to get around the prohibitions on race and sex discrimination in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
    The most effective way to stifle its “neo-racism” is by action on a state-by-state basis and to do what California and Ward Connerly did starting in the 1990s: pass state laws by ballot initiatives disallowing the use of “diversity” arguments to allow use of racial preferences.
    Academics Tom Wood and Glynn Custred came up with excellent text for the California Civil Rights Initiative (Prop 209), a politically savvy and personable businessman and UC regent, Ward Connerly, came on board with many of his politically powerful allies and connections, and the CCRI was passed by the electorate. And then essentially identical ballot initiatives passed in 5 other states. Where to next? North Carolina. Kenny Xu and Color Us United are already there, Ward is on Kenny’s advisory board, the NC legislature is already known to be favorable to the idea, including especially the leader of the NC state senate Phil Berger, as are some administrators in NC publlic universities….. Should be one afternoon’s work!

  2. „ Your colleagues know how their bread is buttered“. Therein lies the rub: Today, and for the past 150 years or so (at least in the West), Scientific Research is a job, and Science ist just another market economy. Some people are unhappy with their positions or access to research dollars, and they‘ll use any means, fair or foul, to get ahead and get rid of the competition (perfectly legit in a market economy). The majority of the top positions in academia are occupied by Old White Men. Retaining the „lets just focus objectively on merit“ will not change that. So what do you guys expect?

  3. First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
    —Martin Niemöller

    Merit has been dying for decades: choked, shot at, knifed, gored, trampled, and drowned…and yet, it continued to cling to a precarious life, hidden in various nooks & crannies (primarily in business, occasionally in academia, rarely in the public square)…daring to stand and even occasionally shout: I am the Way!. Those days are dwindling.

    Formerly, an UnWoke Managerial class would even admit that ‘Diversity Hires’ / Affirmative Action Additions were not particularly productive: “Sure, Kevin is not the most qualified — no question — and his experience is minimal. But he seems eager, and the rest of the people around him are good, so I’m sure we can absorb the occasional ‘Kevin’ even if he turns out to be mediocre.” Besides — we all knew the Political Point Game and the necessity, at year-end, to be able to tell your Boss: ‘Hey, this is what I did to support DIVERSITY! Here’s a photo of Kevin!’

    And so we hired Kevin. And then we promoted Kevin. And then we allowed Kevin to hire and promote others. Thus the Death Spiral of Mediocrity began. Kevin found very bright people threatening, and so he avoided them. He wouldn’t hire them because they’d push him and ask hard questions he couldn’t answer. And so he didn’t. And he felt good about not hiring them and hiring instead more from the Historically Disadvantaged & Under-Represented. He became a mentor, convinced that his utter non-performance was key to his success. He was emulated.

    Things got worse.
    The Good People who originally surrounded Kevin and kept the organization on the straight & narrow began to leave. They got tired and retired. And Kevin hired their replacements. After a while The Process, which before purred, began to hiccup. Quality declined. Deliveries were delayed. More time became invested in Sensitivity Seminars and Inclusivity Workshops, and less on how to productively generate a profit… (or educate a top-notch student, as the case may be).

    Welcome, they told us, to the Idiocracy. (And we don’t even have Brawndo!)

    Today you’d be hard pressed to find even that same minimal self awareness which helped kick-off this whole idiot thing half-a-century ago. Today even the concept of MERIT is corrupt. Objective Standards, we’re told, are only the obsolete, racist leftovers of the Oppressive White Supremacist Patriarchal Bad Old Days. So when we read Kendi as part of our Mandatory ReEducation Camps, no one is surprised to learn that discriminating on the basis of skin color (anti-racism!) is a good thing …if it changes the Under Represented Numbers. Equity outcomes are everything.

    So we swallow the Blue Pill of DIE. And we nod when we encounter this year’s version of the Pomona Idiots, who — in their angry, looney-tunes response to their President’s plea for Free Speech back in 2017 – told us: “Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.”

    …And on the pedestal these words appeared: Our name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on our Works, ye Mighty….and try not to guffaw. Written by the ‘best of the best’, enrolled at a school considered one of the most “prestigious liberal arts colleges in the country”: Their ‘Letter of Outrage’ is garbage. Irrational, factually wrong & poorly, poorly written. It’d be funny, if it weren’t so pathetic; it’d be pathetic, if it weren’t so dangerous.

    Six years on, we’re now removing the academic hurdles formerly required of medical students.
    We’re eliminating Quant Requirements and Standardized Testing.
    Grammar and spelling and the ability to speak — they’re all overrated!
    Why not, we say, for if we don’t DIEing doesn’t stand a chance.

    “Somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

  4. With regard to the comment above by “Pinkerite,” I suggest that he or she brush up on logic, particularly the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy. That is the fallacy of claiming to have refuted an argument merely by pointing to some circumstance about the person making it. Whoever “owns” and finances MTC has no bearing the the cogency of the arguments advanced by Turner in the article. Would this Pinkerite person be persuaded by this line: “Professor X’s argument that more federal spending will stimulate the economy is refuted by the fact that it appears in the New York Times, which is owned by leftist plutocrats”? I would hope not. Arguments stand or fall on their merits, not on the circumstances of the individuals who make them.

  5. If anyone would like to help Prof. Gerber in his legal battle with ONU, please see the GoFundMe link below. Even if you can’t or don’t want to donate, please share to help raise awareness of what is happening to Prof. Gerber. Thanks.


  6. It is one thing to let fools open their mouths and so remove all doubt. The problem for us is that cowardice is not restricted to administrators who cannot mount a cogent defense of their foolishness. It is widespread among our colleague professors as well.

    1. The Chronicle of Higher Education is wholely owned by the DEI community. I defy you to find a single article in there that takes a balanced—let alone critical—view of DEI. For example, the latest edition has four articles: “DEI Legislation Tracker”, “‘More Cowardly Than Cautious’: Faculty Decry College Leaders’ Silence on DEI Attacks”, “DEI: The Case for Common Ground”, and “‘It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way’: One Scholar’s Front-Row Seat to Higher-Ed Battles in Wisconsin and Texas”. That’s all you need to know about where that publication stands on the issue.

    2. This is really such a silly comment.

      And if MtC were to say that ice cream was tasty, would you equally dismiss that declaration because the Association which owns them is itself owned by ‘right-wing’ plutocrats (whatever they are)? Would you insist that eating ice cream must be — by definition — a facist, plutocratic act not unlike eating liver & onions? Would you, henceforth, refuse all ice cream because MtC said it was tasty? (And what a massive mistake THAT would be!)

      The urge to dismiss art entirely and focus only & instead on the frame which holds it does the critic no credit.

    3. Sourcewatch is run by the CMD which has been financed by the terrrorist Holy Land Relief Foundation, and the defamatory SPLC.

      Thank you for shining the light on your violent far-left (D)ark money groups. Cheers!

  7. Just as an example of how far this DEI garbage has permeated everything, I just submitted a paper to a technical conference. On the conference webpage is a listing of the conference organizers (general chair, publications chair, publicity chair, etc.) Well, I noticed a new chair position: the diversity chair. Seeing as this is an international conference, I have no idea what the duties and responsibilities of this individual are.

  8. This is a great article and I agree with every word that you have written. Except you haven’t mentioned that the woke leaders in academia are cowardly–let me repeat- they are Cowards. They are cowards because they cannot do the one thing academia has been best known for–making a reasonable argument with evidence and logic. That is, they are both cowardly and vapid. So I recommend to anyone (man or women) who thinks that the colleges and universities are going down the toilet, and I have not met anyone who doesn’t, be a man, which (I think David Bray or Dorian Abbot wrote recently} is the root of the word virtue:

    virtue (n.)

    c. 1200, vertu, “moral life and conduct; a particular moral excellence,” from Anglo-French and Old French vertu “force, strength, vigor; moral strength; qualities, abilities” (10c. in Old French), from Latin virtutem (nominative virtus) “moral strength, high character, goodness; manliness; valor, bravery, courage (in war); excellence, worth,” from vir “man”.

    Let’s give them a chance to show off their cowardice and vapidity and fight the decrepitude..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *